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Cinema in Focus: ‘For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada’

It's a difficult film to watch, but nevertheless a significant representation

4 Stars — Inspiring

Dean Wright (director) and Michael Love (writer) bring to the screen the inspiring and tragic story of the Cristero War in Mexico (1926-29) where the government tried unsuccessfully, but brutally, to rid the country of the influence of the Catholic Church. Like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada is rated R and is not for the faint of heart as it portrays graphically the extent that an evil government is willing to go to fight with God.

Although this is a film of historical significance to Mexico, filmed in Mexico and supported by the Mexican Film Fund, the producers chose to broaden its appeal in North America by using some internationally known American actors and filming the story in English.

While the facts may be distinctly tied to a period of Mexican history, the imagery and evil portrayed is universal and often harks back to images of the Roman Empire in its quest to crush the early Christian movement as a threat to their political power.

The Cristero War is a fascinating and troubling period in Mexican history that had a spillover impact on California as a refuge for those who wanted religious freedom. The genesis of the rebellion had its roots in the adoption of a new Mexican Constitution in 1917 that gave broad powers to the government at every level to restrict the impact of the Catholic Church. Much of the world at that time was following the emergence of socialism in Europe and Russia, and in Mexico there was an attempt to implement these same atheistic reforms under the guise of “separation of church and state.”

For Greater Glory gives us a glimpse of three elements of this universal battle. The first is the impact of personal courage and Christian example lived out in front of their persecutors. Father Christopher (Peter O’Toole) is an elderly priest who chooses to defy the government’s ban on saying the Mass, and he refuses to abandon his parish even though his townspeople plead with him to leave.

His martyrdom has a profound impact on a young boy, Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio (Mauricio Kuri), who ultimately gives his life in martyrdom himself when he follows Father Christopher’s example and will not denounce Christ in front of his family and the army. Jose’s martyrdom motivated leaders to come forth to fight the evil being perpetuated by the government.

The second element of truth is the fact that no amount of brutality or harsh political treatment can escape moral judgment. Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles (Ruben Blades) follows the path of Joseph Stalin and tries to crush the church by executing priests in the street to set an example of his power.

One graphic scene shows many believers hung from telephone poles stretching into the horizon similar to the crosses the Romans would line up down a road to make their point. The unintended consequence was that a highly decorated military leader, Enrique Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia), rose up to lead thousands of “Cristeros” in a fight to challenge President Calles and ultimately defeating his plan. Enrique Velarde was not a deep believer, but his moral outrage and the courage of the Cristeros moved him to action, even though it put his family at great risk. He was among the best military strategists in Mexico, and his skill galvanized the many anti-government groups that were operating independently into an army.

The final lesson of the film is that although evil may be suppressed at any point in history, it has not been eliminated. Armed conflict may bring an end to an unjust war, but it doesn’t transform peoples’ hearts into pure love in a way exemplified by Christ. Ongoing discernment and sacrifice, living out moral courage as an example in front of others, and standing up for what is right in the political process is a necessity every day. It isn’t something we recognize as just a contribution in the past.

The Cristero War may have ended in 1929, but in Mexico it is still illegal to hold a Mass outdoors or for a priest to hold a public office. We are never more than a few moments, steps, or actions away from evil re-emerging and assuming leadership in our midst.

Discussion:

» Why do you think government is so fearful of the Christian faith? Why does it attempt to silence pastors and priests?

» When the Christians were killed by Rome and by Mexico it strengthens the faith. Why do you think this is?

» What will you do when government attempts to impede your religious freedoms?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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